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When form becomes function: the sonic and visual work of Japanese Canadian artist Nobuo Kubota

Nobuo Kubota
An upcoming show, “Our (Orihon) Nobuo”, will honour the artistic talents of Vancouver-born Nobuo Kubota at Shintani Gallery in Toronto. Photo by Laura Shintani.

By Craig Takeuchi

Have you experienced being constantly surrounded by a language you don’t understand? Or do you find yourself frequently caught between differing worlds? The work of one of Canada’s leading multimedia artists speaks to such experiences—and reveals what can be found by embracing these liminal spaces. Performer, visual artist, sculptor, and former architect Nobuo Kubota has explored such areas of ambiguity for decades—and a forthcoming art event will honour his artistic wisdom and vision.

Born in Vancouver, B.C., in 1932, Nobuo Kubota has personal experience being immersed in a linguistic world he didn’t completely understand—he grew up in a household in which his parents spoke Japanese while he spoke English. Both only learned enough of the other language to communicate. Although he did attend Japanese language classes in Vancouver, he has stated in interviews that he isn’t fluent in Japanese and that his parents only spoke limited English.

Accordingly, Kubota acquired an ear for the Japanese language—its intonations, its rhythms, its overall feel. He incorporates elements of this experience through his aural and visual artwork that convey the representation of sounds without signifying anything specific. Accordingly, the forms themselves become the meaning.

A fundamental principle of architecture, which he has a background in, is form follows function. But when form exists without an actual function, the form can become the function itself.

Nobuo Kubota’s “CRACKLE, vocal improv” demonstrates his fascination for sounds.

Kubota incorporates diverse influences

After graduating with a Bachelor in Architecture from the University of Toronto in 1959, Kubota worked as an architect for a decade before pursuing a career in the fine arts in 1969. (Incidentally, when he was named for a Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts in 2009, he received the award alongside another renowned Toronto architect Raymond Moriyama—who, like Kubota, experienced the Japanese Canadian Internment during the Second World War.) Kubota’s work as a sculptor, which incorporated influences of constructivism and minimalism, also reflects his longstanding interest in form.

In addition to his training and work in various disciplines, his art also incorporates diverse cultural influences. Growing up, he learned to appreciate elements of both Japanese and Western music. As a solo performer, his repertoire has included Buddhist chants, sound poetry, jazz improvisation, scatting, glossolalia (speaking in tongues), and bodily noises. Through The Four Horsemen, a Toronto-based ensemble of Canadian poets active from 1972 to 1988, he discovered sound poetry in the early 1980s. He became a member of the Artists Jazz Band in the 1960s and the Canadian Creative Music Collective (CCMC) from 1974 to 1991.

Using calligraphy brushes to make marks and strokes, he extended his sound work into visual representation through visual sound poetry. His “sonic calligraphy”, which resembles a seismograph printout, is his effort to visually represent sound. In addition, his live sound performances have included gongs, drums, and keyboards, some performed by other musicians. Often combining sound, music, installation, and film, he describes his work as “intermedia”.

Kubota at Shintani Gallery
The tribute to Nobuo Kubota is part of a Shintani Gallery series, unTwisted Perspectives. showcasing Japanese Canadian artists.

Shintani Gallery celebrates Kubota’s legacy

The upcoming art performance, “Our (Orihon) Nobuo”, will honour the artistic talents of Kubota at Shintani Gallery in Toronto, where he now lives. The show features a performance by him as well as a large orihon (a Japanese-style book with a folded structure like an accordion). At the event, attendees can contribute their thoughts and feelings about Kubota and his work by adding comments or visual elements to the orihon.

Curator Laura Shintani organized the show with her relative, Will Shintani, who opened the gallery in 2019.

“I imagined an intimate show where Japanese Canadian artists would gather to exchange intergenerational strength and expression,” Shintani says, not only of occasion as a social gathering but also of the potential contributions to the orihon.

Reflecting on Kubota’s enduring legacy, Shintani admires his irrepressible spirit and the vibrancy of his work—it’s a testament to his relevance at the age of 91. As a Japanese Canadian artist herself, Shintani finds inspiration in Kubota’s creativity, which defies stereotypes, genres, and sometimes even definition.

“His playful and irreverent nature shines through,” she says. “I believe the Japanese Canadian community is all the better for it.”

Shintani also recognizes how his compositions reflect his identity as a Canadian. She observes how the “gritty spirit” of Kubota’s creations conveys “the heart of a pioneer at work” and how his work embodies “a contrast between the rugged nature of Canadian landscape and the formal and standard language of architecture.”

Accordingly, she perceives how the nature of the nation is infused in his artistry as well.

“I feel his work speaks to the history of our Canadian multicultural language landscape,” she says.

“Our (Orihon) Nobuo” will be held at 2 p.m. on April 21 at Shintani Gallery (700 Lansdowne Avenue, Toronto). Follow Pancouver on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.